Every time James Byers turns on his phone, he catches a glimpse of his background photo – an image of Epcot Center glowing across the lake at night.
And for a second, his mind isn’t dwelling on his cancer and the chemotherapy and how tired he’s feeling.
For a second, maybe more, he smiles remembering the trip he took in January with his wife, Rebecca, and their two sons, Adam, 14, and Zachary, 21. On Jan. 21, they traveled to Orlando, Florida, to visit Disney World and Discovery Cove.
“There’s not many days I don’t think about something we did on that trip to get through my days,” said Byers, 51, of Garner. “We called it a ‘Making Memories Mission.’”
It was a trip of firsts for them – including their sons’ first flight – and an opportunity to create lasting memories together. James relished watching his sons swim with dolphins. And he was healthy enough to swim in a coral reef and see schools of beautiful Nemo-like fish.
“It was like sticking your face in an aquarium,” Byers said.
To top it off, they didn’t have to worry about spending a dime.
The relatively new Cary-based Fill Your Bucket List Foundation paid for everything – from flights and hotels to food expenses. The organization’s mission is to grant wishes to adult cancer patients with financial need. Similar to the Make a Wish Foundation, the organization wants to give patients and their families a memorable experience and a chance to do something they might not be able to do.
Just as important, they want the wish recipients to think of something other than the cancer that’s dominated their lives since the day they were diagnosed. They want them to have hope.
Byers is the second recipient of a wish through the organization.
“For them to step in and take care of everything was just a true blessing,” said Byers, who was diagnosed July 15, 2013, with a gastrointestinal cancer that affects both the stomach and esophagus.
Making the list
Peggy Gibson Carroll is the executive director and founder of the organization. Really, she’s more like a fairy godmother.
Carroll, who moved to Cary in 1976, launched the foundation in August last year. She had been thinking of starting such an organization when her father, Chuck Gibson, was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer in 2008 and died five months later at the age of 79. When he was diagnosed, treatment wasn’t an option, and they knew they didn’t have long to be together.
“I literally sat down and said, ‘What’s on your bucket list?’” Carroll recalls.
Together, they watched “The Bucket List,” the 2007 film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. And they wrote down the things they wanted to do. Her father’s list was simple: see his brother in Ohio; visit with his friends from the Marine Corps; and make sure he didn’t miss a single football game or band competition of his grandchildren’s, even on days when he wasn’t feeling good.
He was feeling OK the day he went to the last Athens Drive band competition, but he died the next day. Carroll believes her father was at peace.
“His bucket list was done,” she said. “I said, ‘There’s something to this bucket list.’”
Since then, she’s contemplated how she can grant these wishes. While her father’s dreams weren’t extravagant, not everyone could make them a reality. For those who struggle financially, cancer is the blow that complicates life even further, with missed work and medical bills.
In addition to Carroll’s experience with her father, she worked for 25 years in the oncology field as a patient advocate at Bristol-Myers Squibb, the pharmaceutical company. She spent her days connecting cancer patients to foundations to help them navigate their cancer journey. She’s knowledgeable about the resources available to cancer patients, probably more than most, but she didn’t realize the need for a wish-making group for adults until she started doing some research.
She reached out to Make a Wish, who confirmed the need for such an organization. Make a Wish works with those who are 18 and younger and who have a terminal illness. She found a similar group in Arizona and offered to partner with them, but they already had plenty of work on their hands.
Last summer, her father’s doctor told her about Ylonda Renee Thompson, a 41-year-old woman who had been fighting breast cancer on and off for 15 years. She was a single mom with three sons, and the doctor told Carroll that Thompson’s disease was progressing.
That’s all Carroll needed. She and her team of volunteers launched the foundation. They sent Thompson and her family on a Disney Cruise. When Thompson got off the ship, she didn’t have her oxygen nor her walker.
“I feel so good,” she told Carroll.
Thompson died six months later, on Jan. 20, the day before Byers went on his trip.
A desire to grow
The experiences of the Byers and Thompson families only fuel Carroll to want to do more. She gets choked up thinking about the gratitude she felt for those who made the trips possible, knowing the longlasting effects they have on the families.
“Because really in the end, what you have is your memories,” Carroll said. “You want those memories to be good for the patient, but also the people who love them.”
She dreams of granting a wish once a month this year, and then moving to one wish a week. She wants to have a paid staff, and eventually expand Fill Your Bucket List to a national level.
She’s an enthusiastic woman with deep roots in the Triangle. Her board of directors includes oncologists, medical school professors and former colleagues with Bristol-Myers Squibb. Carroll now works with dermatology company Rodan & Fields, who helped her figure out the steps needed to create a nonprofit organization, and was a founding sponsor.
BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, Geico (operated locally by Frank Fortunato) and GlobalDoc are the corporate sponsors of the first Bucket Bash this Sunday, March 29. It will be the organization’s first major fundraiser, and Carroll has high hopes it will enable more wishes to be granted. A wish for a third recipient already is in the works, and the foundation’s Board of Directors continues to review nominations.
“I hope we’re going to blow it out of the water,” she said.
Byers plans to be at the Bucket Bash. He is forever grateful for what the foundation did for him and his family.
It was their first family trip in years, and one they never could have afforded. Before cancer, before the day he was told he’d have three months to live, before the 30-plus chemo treatments and countless pills, he worked installing home audio systems. He no longer works, and his wife, a preschool teacher, is back to work after taking time off to care for him.
“Being able to not think about ‘the C word,’ to sit and have dinner and just talk about other things,” he says, his voice noticeably lifting remembering the five days in January that made such a difference.
“It was just amazing that there’s something out there for folks like myself.”
▪ Go to www.fillyourbucketlistfoundation.org to learn more about nominating a wish recipient or making a donation.
▪ The Bucket Bash fundraiser is Sunday, March 29, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Outdoor Pavilion, 5020 Weston Parkway, Cary. Tickets are $75. Go to bucketbash.eventbrite.com.